Of Icons and Ice

Published: November 15th 2011
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There are competitors for the title of the world's greatest canyon. Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet is said to be considerably deeper and longer than the Grand Canyon. Colca Canyon in Peru is also deeper and longer than the Grand Canyon. Tara in Montenegro touts itself as second to the Grand Canyon but, alas, it looks like Tara is number 4 at least. We haven't seen Yarlung Tsangpo – yet – but we have seen the others and, for us, there is no argument. The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River in Arizona is the most spectacular canyon in the world that we have seen.

The debate of course is all pretty silly as, in our opinion, it should be. There doesn't seems to be any real agreement on what constitutes a canyon as such. There is general agreement that a canyon is also a gorge. But when does a canyon, or gorge, become a valley? When it widens out? When people live in it? When it is possible to walk/climb down the sides? Doesn't matter really. Canyons, gorges and valleys can all be beautiful and the debate is only useful as a hook for a discussion.

It is possible
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Grand Canyon National Park
that we are almost the only travellers in the world not to have seen the Grand Canyon until now. They get 5 million visitors a year through the place and it has been attracting tourists a long time. Apparently, the first Englishman to see it wasn't very impressed. He called it a 'horrible place'. Luckily for Arizona tourism this view was not shared by the rest of the world.

You can drive along both the North and South Rims. We had planned to stay on the North Rim but changed our plans because there was no operating accommodation on the North Rim as we headed for the Canyon, except the campground. And there was no power there. And there was also some uncertainty about whether the road there would stay open or not. So we wimped out and stayed at a Holiday Inn on the South Rim.

In our defence I would add that, as we drove towards the Canyon down Route 160, large areas of the country in the immediate vicinity were airborne, howling across the plains in reasonable sized dust storms. This part of the world is well used to dust storms and, while this one
Bright lightsBright lightsBright lights

Las Vegas
was good enough to make the Arizona news, it didn't make it onto CNN. I will say we have been through much, much bigger ones in Central Australia, but this was enough to convince us that a nice, secure room in a hotel was a good option.

On the afternoon of our arrival we were able to get a pretty good look at the Canyon but there was a dust/smoke/heat haze that made it difficult to take good photos. The next morning, after 4 inches of snow, it was beautiful and clear with the snowfall having cleaned things up a bit. There were also a few less people about even though the roads were relatively clear. It was cold. Well below freezing. We had intended to attend a talk on the geology of the Canyon late in the day but made the mistake of ducking back to the hotel first, which was in the village of Tusayan just outside the Park. It was warm and dry there. We stayed. We could read up on the geology later.

The weather reports were predicting another snow storm on Sunday night so we decided we should get ourselves to a place where it might not be so severe. We checked out the options and decided that Flagstaff, just a little way down the state, would be OK. There were some interesting things to see on the way and we could head back up to Zion National Park on Tuesday when the weather looked like being a bit better. Here, our occasional lack of attention to detail kicked in. We had assumed that Flagstaff, being in Arizona which is mostly a hot state and being closer to Phoenix would be warmer. That, of course, is not so. Flagstaff is higher than most places in the State and thus susceptible to snow falls. A quick look at the weather would have informed us. Bugger.

The Wupatki National Monument, Sunset Crater, the lava field and cinder piles were well worth the time we took on the way to Flagstaff. The pueblos of the Wupatiki Monument were built and housed thousands of people here for over 400 years from about 800 AD to 1200. It isn't clear where they went when they left but a number of people seem to be keen to establish a relationship with them as some of the earliest settlers
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Zion National Park
in the region. The Hopi seem to be agreed to have the strongest connection. The pueblos were not in cliffs. There were substantial buildings in the pueblos that provide clear evidence that the people lived and farmed here well before the more nomadic, and aggressive, groups arrived somewhat later.

I have read often about lava fields and cinder mountains. It was excellent to actually clap eyes on them.

Flagstaff. What can I say. It was cold and snowing for most of the day we were spent there. We carved the snow off the car and drove a little way to find a place for a feed. Then I took the time to have a much needed haircut and that was about it. It did snow on and off all day and night but the roads were reasonably clear in the morning so, after clearing much more snow off the car, off we went.

Basically, we headed up towards the Grand Canyon again but this time towards the North Rim. The country was increasingly spectacular as we neared the Canyon. Our route 89A took us past Lees Ferry which is acknowledged as the start of the Grand Canyon and then around the North Rim. There was plenty of snow about but the roads were still passable and, after a couple of days I figured I was expert anyway.

Our destination was Zion Canyon in Utah. We entered through the east entrance and had to stop almost immediately for photos. This time we were in the canyon rather than looking down from the top. We proceeded down into the canyon through a winding road and deep tunnel. A completely different perspective from the Grand Canyon and, dare I say it, possibly better. But much, much smaller of course.

Again we wimped out on the tent and took to a hotel in the town of Springdale immediately outside the National Park. Relatively expensive but, what the hell, the trip is almost over and we are well under budget. There are some good and easy walks up along the canyon and we completed a few. We weren't really keen enough to get into any of the more strenuous ones. A head cold is a nuisance. But the canyon was spectacular. The forces that create these places are something to ponder and the capacity for nature to just keep on
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below sea level at Badwater Basin
keeping on is a lesson worth reflection. Awesome is a good word for the place.

But enough of canyons: it was time to hit another American icon. Bring on the casinos, the lights and the action.

We rolled along on the I-15 down the rest of the Virgin River Canyon which is an extension of the Zion Canyon. It was a good drive, dropping a couple of thousand feet in a relatively short time. It was a lot warmer when we made it to Las Vegas. There are a lot of shops in the city and we found a few. There is a significant difference between the price of clothes in the US and Australia and it was time, apparently, to take advantage. We did but not to the extent desired. It is, after all, 'Winter in America' and it never is where we are going to live – or at least it has never snowed there.

We had a small timing problem as we moved out to take on the city that night. We were an hour early, having not realised that Nevada is on Pacific time. But that just gave us a start. It would be hard to be blasé about the place. You might hate the crass and tacky, be offended at so much money being spent on such baubles or wonder how many people had to be sent broke to pay for it all, but it is amazing. It truly is.

We picked our way through the massive Bally complex, marvelled at the size and opulence of the Bellagio and the unbelievable Caesars Palace, complete with every up-market shop you could name. It was made so easy to gamble. I heard a bloke – pom tourist – say he didn't know how to play. The croupier took him immediately in hand. He was still at the table when we passed through again 2 hours later.

The Mirage and Harrahs were a little more down market than the big places but were still opulent and obviously making money. We enjoyed ourselves for the hours we spent, part of it having an excellent Chinese feed in a restaurant that turned out to be considerably more up-market than we had thought it would be.

But after one night and most of one day we had had enough and needed to recuperate. Death Valley seemed like the best option.

Death Valley is, for us, another US icon. It is said to have been given the name by a miner who was in a party who crossed the place, taking a shortcut to the gold mines in 1849. In summer it is hot but in the fall it is very comfortable. We had timed it absolutely spot on if I do say so myself.

The drive in from the eastern entrance to the National Park gives you a pretty immediate taste of what is to come. We had dropped down a couple of thousand feet from Las Vegas and camped at Texas Spring Campground which is roughly at sea level. The lowest point in the park is 282 feet below sea level at Badwater. We walked out onto the salt flat and made it to a point where my GPS said we were at 275 feet below but no-one seemed to have ventured further so we turned around.

There is a lot of hiking possibilities and plenty of smaller, relatively easy ones that take you into areas that are rich in either history or geology. We did a number of the smaller walks and were satisfied that we had looked enough after roughly 10 kms during the day. A group of PhD geology students who camped next to us were going to spend 12 hours a day for the next 5 days. I have no doubt they would not be bored. The place could keep you occupied for a long time if you knew enough.

There is still snow about with cold fronts flowing through the US but we are now officially on our way back to San Francisco and we have a route mapped out that will avoid any trouble, we hope. Unfortunately, the pass that we had intended to use to travel into Yosemite from the east is currently closed. It will open again I suppose, but perhaps not in time for us, and we would like to avoid buying chains, so we will travel through Walker Pass and up through the Sierra Nevada mountains towards the western entrance of Yosemite. With luck it will be just a little warmer on the western side of the mountains and there will be less chance of us being stuck.

Additional photos below
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Badwater BasinBadwater Basin
Badwater Basin

Death Valley
Cinder ConesCinder Cones
Cinder Cones

Sunset Crater National Park
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Dressed for the weather

Zion National Park

15th November 2011

Sorry about the cold weather
I'm glad that you were able to see most of what you wanted with a little backtracking. For me the geology of the West is the most beautiful part of our country. Glad you were able to see it.
15th November 2011

You had me laughing on this one.
When you said you were heading for Flagstaff I knew you had not done your homework on the elevation. Flagstaff gets very cold and windy. The canyon is very nice isn't it? You've seen a lot of nice country side. Vegas....well, what can you say, they spend too much money on lights and I hate the dinging bells of the slots...the constant noise is awful. But, Vegas is fun in short periods.
15th November 2011

Wimping out?
Probably not classified as wimping out when there's snow on the ground. And nice haircut.
15th November 2011

Yosemite western entrance
This way in is pretty good too. El Capitan sort of takes the breath away - another time to ponder the strength of nature. I can also attest that it is possible to do SF - Yosemite - SF in one day, although a long one.
18th November 2011
Desert Drive

This picture is so clear and crisp. Fantastic.
20th November 2011
Desert Drive

Hello Chris and Nikki
Thank you for your comment. Glad you like the photo. Coming from tropical Australia, we tend to get a bit excited about snow, especially as we're going back soon and won't see any more snow and ice for a long time.

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